Malaysia: 50 years of independence - Colonialism at the root of the national question

Today August 31, Malaysia celebrates half a century of independence from British colonial rule. In 1957, the Federation of Malaya, later renamed Malaysia, was born out of the national liberation struggle, pushed by the Malayan Communist Party after World War II, but robbed by the right-wing nationalists of UMNO. At the age of 50, Malaysia still suffers from a deep ethnic and religious divide sown by imperialism. Today's problems are the legacy of colonial rule and continuing capitalist interests pitting ordinary working people against each other.

Merchant capitalism

Colonisation by the British Empire followed on centuries of colonial intrusion started by the Portuguese in 1511. Attempts in the early 17th century to establish English trade posts in the "East Indies" were drowned in blood when the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, Dutch East India Company) massacred the English in 1623 at Ambon (currently Indonesia). Dutch merchant capitalism was able to establish its rule over Malaysian-Indonesian territory in 1641 and the British decided to focus on India. Yet when the Netherlands was captured in 1795 during the Napoleonic Wars, Malaysia was given to the British to prevent it falling to the French. It was returned to the Dutch in 1818 under the treaty of Vienna.

However, after the defeat of Napoleon, the balance of forces on a world scale had shifted significantly in favour of the British Empire. The Dutch government still tried to prohibit British ships from trading in the archipelago (except at Batavia). Therefore, the British established a strategic port in the southern Malay waters in 1819. Singapore was born. In 1824, the Dutch ceded Malacca and recognized the British claim to Singapore, while the British agreed not to enter into treaties with rulers in what was to become Indonesia. In effect, the Dutch were granted the right to rule over the southern part of the archipelago in exchange for their silent recognition of British hegemony. Britain established in 1826 the crown colony of the Straits Settlements, uniting its three possessions in Malaya: Penang, Malacca and Singapore. This imposed an arbitrary frontier on the Malay world, in complete disregard of ethnic and linguistic factors. The Straits Settlements were administered under the British East India Company in Calcutta until 1867, when they were transferred to the Colonial Office in London.

During those first centuries of colonial rule, only small pockets of territory were occupied. This was the time of merchant capitalism in which European capitalists were mainly interested in trade: spices from the Moluccas, textiles from India, silk and porcelain from China. The Malayan peninsula was extremely well positioned as far as maritime trading and warfare goes. Through strategic ports, Britain wanted to bolster the defence of its Indian empire and secure the trade route to China. In fact, Singapore was established to safeguard the British opium trade with China. But until 1874 the British Malay possessions were limited to the three ports of Singapore, Malacca and Penang. With an almost unchallenged control over the world's sea-lanes, the British trade interests were easily served.

With the advent of the classical era of imperialism, things changed rapidly. Already in the 17th century, large deposits of tin were found in several Malay states. But it was only during the second half of the 19th century that investment in the tin mines started to boom when world demand dramatically increased due to, amongst others things, the American Civil War. European and Chinese capitalists from Singapore began to argue for the "pacification" (i.e. occupation) of the interior states to secure their returns on investment. The local press, financed by these capitalists, constantly called for intervention. D.R. SarDesai writes:

"The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the establishment of telegraph in Singapore in 1871, and the increasing use of steam-powered sea transport linked European ports directly with the Southeast Asian markets. British traders, unaccustomed to competition as yet, became restive as important inroads were made by European rivals into the tin trade and, even worse, into Singapore's entrepot business. (...) The British government's policy of nonintervention in the Malay states, repeatedly enunciated in the second and third quarters of the 19th century, stood in the way of trading interests." (Southeast Asia: Past and Present, p.102)

The Sultanate of Perak's wealth in tin mines made political stability there a priority for British investors. Hence, Britain manoeuvred to get it's own candidate, Abdullah, elected by the Perak chiefs as the new sultan. In an agreement worthy of the mafia, the British Empire promised to protect the state against its internal and external enemies in exchange for the supervision by a British "Resident". The sultan had to "ask the advice" of this imperialist representative on all questions other than those touching Malay religion and custom. The collection and control of all revenues and the general administration of the country had to be regulated under his advice.

However, the British were soon to discover that custom and tradition played a bigger role in the Malay world than in the world of the imperialist "advisers". As SarDesai writes: "Justice, tax collection, debt-slavery, and succession to the throne were all sanctified by custom and therefore, in the Malay view, beyond the pale of the Resident's advice." (ibid. p.105) When this led to the murder of Resident Birch in 1875, the empire reacted promptly and crushed the rebellion of Perak's chiefs in the so-called Perak War. The sultan was exiled. The capitalists had finally overruled the traditional ruling class. The Malay aristocracy was allowed to continue its formal rule over their subjects, but in effect it was the Residents that dictated the rules. During the 1890s, they intervened frequently in disputes in other Malay states, each time successfully extending the Resident system. By 1895 four Malay states were merged into a federation with a Resident-General who was headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, what was to become the capital of contemporary Malaysia.

Persistence of the pre-capitalist mode of production

Malaya's obvious attractions were its tin mines and to a lesser extent gold. But in 1877 the rubber plant was introduced from Brazil, and rubber soon became Malaya's staple export, stimulated by booming demand from European industry, especially with the development of the automobile. Rubber was later joined by palm oil as an export earner. Over time, Malaya became the world's largest producer of tin, rubber, and palm oil.

All these industries required a large and disciplined labour force. However, the British were reluctant to use the Malays as workers in these industries, for different reasons. First of all, they did not regard them as reliable workers since most Malayans were peasants with according habits and mentality. As Marx has sufficiently explained, the peasant does not automatically become a worker because he is suddenly convinced of the virtues of capitalism. Talking about the new proletariat Marx stated that "these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire." (Capital Vol.I, ch.26)

In its European homelands, capitalism was born out of the crisis of feudalism. Yet when the European merchants established themselves in Southeast Asia, they were just interested in relatively small ports to trade, and left the existing modes of production largely unchanged. For centuries they coexisted, without a real crisis of these pre-capitalist modes of production. Although many areas were to some extent drawn into the world market through trade, the effect of exchange was to reinforce the hold of the pre-capitalist ruling class and the resistance to the implantation of capitalist relations of production. So, since the preconditions for capitalist production did not arise naturally in these areas, they had to be imposed by external force. This is what happened in many colonies, especially with the advent of the imperialist stage towards the end of the 19th century. Direct military and administrative coercion was used to recruit workers and to compel peasants to produce cash crops.

One good example is the Dutch Culture System in Indonesia. Starting from 1830, Holland forced the Javanese peasant to devote one-fifth of his land or sixty-six working days per year for the cultivation of cash crops for the government. Most soon had to dedicate two-fifths to meet production quotas. In the 1840s, 70 percent of the Javanese population participated in this forced labour. This resulted in a serious curtailment of subsistence food production and famines repeatedly ensued. The worst of these famines, the Semarang famine of 1850, claimed 300,000 lives. In contrast, Dutch capitalism fared quite well: the Culture System produced enough money for the Netherlands to pay off the national debt and finance the construction of the Dutch railway system. Nevertheless, this money came at the cost of constant peasant rebellions and a local people seething with anger.

In Malaysia, the British took however quite a different road. When they had finally subjugated the Malay states, the empire was already declining and challenged by other imperialist states. It was important to secure peace in the strategic Malay sea-lanes. Therefore, the Residents choose to rule via the Malay aristocracy while not creating social turmoil through extracting labour from their societies. The peasant population refused, as elsewhere, to supply labour for the mines and plantations because of the terrible conditions. But the colonial state had other options to recruit workers, who were already more adapted to capitalist relations.

The solution was the importation of workers from India and China. The Indians came mainly as labourers to work in the rubber plantations and public works. The mines, mills and docks attracted a flood of immigrant workers from southern China. Soon towns like Singapore, Penang and Ipoh were majority Chinese, as was Kuala Lumpur, founded as a tin-mining centre in 1857. By 1891, when Malaya's first census was taken, Perak and Selangor, the main tin-mining states, had Chinese majorities. In fact, Chinese had been in the region for centuries as traders and middlemen. These "Straits Chinese" often had become rich merchants and played an important role in attracting manual labourers from their home country. In the 1890s Yap Ah Loy, who held the title of Kapitan China of Kuala Lumpur, was the richest man in Malaya, owning a chain of mines, plantations and shops. Malaya's banking and insurance industries were run by the Chinese from the start. Nevertheless, real power remained safely in the hands of British imperialism, but they had severely altered the country's ethnic mix.

The emergence of classical imperialism in the second half of the 19th century went hand in hand with an ideology of racial superiority, the "White Man's Burden", which denied the fitness of subjugated peoples for self-government. In the same way so-called scientific theories of race were used to organize the division of labour in Malaysia. As Paul M. Lubeck analyses: "Officials assumed each racial and ethnic group possessed inherited predispositions toward performing needed roles in the colonial division of labour, be they martial arts, commerce, wage labour, efficient administration or subsistence farming. In turn, these beliefs provided the necessary ideological rationalisation of colonial Malaya's social order as well as the basis of profitability in the Imperial economic system. (...) Alatas (1977) documents the ubiquity of these stereotypes in The Myth of the Lazy Native, where he shows how officials constructed a discourse on the docility of the Indians, the indolence and courtesy of the Malay, and the industry and competitiveness of the Chinese." (in States and Development in the Asian Pacific Rim, edited by Appelbaum & Henderson, p.186)

Clearly this racist ideology was based on false assumptions and a complete lack of historical analysis. For example, far from being indolent and lacking an industrious spirit, Malayan merchants in the 15th century had swarmed throughout the immense Indonesian archipelago, making bahasa Melayu the trading language of the region. (As a consequence, today the national Indonesian language is not the language of the central island Java, but a variant of bahasa Melayu.) It was only with the brutal intrusion of the Portuguese and the Dutch fleet that this Malay merchant class ceased to exist. The Malay Sultanates were encapsulated by colonialism as feudal, peasant societies that could only interact with the world market through European merchant capital. They were frozen in their development and in fact backwards in terms of classes. In the same way historical materialism can help explain the so-called inherited predispositions of the Chinese and the Indians in Malaya.

Clear-cut ethnic "realities", that still persist today, were constructed by the colonial state according to its capitalist interests, but they did not exist before. Though sharing a common Han cultural identity, the Chinese belonged to regionally distinct linguistic groups and organised themselves in Malaya through dialect associations with often violent clashes between them. The Indians were also not at all a united community, since they were divided between Hindus and Muslims and along lines of language and caste. Although an Indian petty bourgeoisie emerged during the early 20th century, the majority of Indians remained poor in rural ghettos in the rubber-growing areas. Cutting through the ethnic divisions were indeed class divisions. In terms of classes the vast majority of the Indians, the Chinese and Malays were exploited by a minority. Yet what hindered the solidarity between the exploited masses was a class divide along ethnic lines: Malay peasants, Indian and Chinese workers, a Malay feudal aristocracy, and European and Chinese capitalists.

The real reason behind the racist ideology was of course a British strategy of divide and rule. Chinese merchants were tolerated and used as middlemen. But British capital wanted to keep them away from direct political power. Since the Malay Sultans tended to spend well beyond their incomes, they were soon in debt to Chinese bankers, and this made them dependent. To counteract Chinese capitalist political aspirations, the British leaned on the Malay feudal lords and allowed them a virtual monopoly of positions in the police and local military units, as well as a majority of those administrative positions open to non-Europeans. Although these positions did contain only minimal power, they gave them the necessary prestige. After all, the indigenous elite was in desperate need of some pride as they resented the success of the Chinese capitalists and their own dependence upon them.

The British educational policies also segregated the different ethnic groups, providing minimal public education for the Malays, and leaving the non-Malays to their own devices. While the Chinese mostly built and paid for their own schools and colleges, importing teachers from China, the government fostered education for Malays.

Meanwhile, the colonial authorities preserved the traditional aristocracy with greater pomp and security than existed before. Through indirect rule, they supported the aristocracy's right to administer customary law and extract wealth out of the Malay peasants. Lubeck writes: "Thus the British wedded the power of the colonial state to the decaying cultural authority of a backward feudal ruling class and, because of the organisational and technical superiority of the colonial state, actually strengthened the aristocracy's capacity to exploit their subjects through taxation, licenses, corruption and, above all, indirect control over land title transactions. As salaried officials who dominated recruitment to the civil service, the ruling groups had privileged access to state economic affairs like allocating mining concessions, the purchase of Malay-reserved land, and access to higher education." (ibid. p.187)

The Malay peasants were kept in misery. The agricultural rights of the indigenous Malays, the Bumiputra (Sons of the Soil), were protected by law to soothe them against colonial domination. In reality, Malay peasants were encouraged to grow rice for local consumption, as they had done for ages, but were prevented from planting rubber, a more lucrative crop reserved for plantations and commercial farmers (often Chinese). British colonial administration not only discouraged Malay rubber production but introduced in 1913 a land reservation policy that blocked Malay land sales to non-Malays, thus driving down land values by as much as 50 percent. Khoo Boo Teik notes: "As a consequence of this ethnic division of labour, the Malay peasantry escaped the harsh conditions of early colonial capitalism that took a heavy tool on migrant labour. But the rural Malay community was thereby locked into an immiserating close-to-subsistence sector." (in The Political Economy of South-East Asia, edited by Rodan, Hewison and Robison, p.181)

Continuation under Japan

During the Second World War, the Japanese managed to capture Malaysia. Japanese imperialism had a racial policy just as the British did and continued the policy of appointing Malay officials. They regarded the Malays as a colonial people liberated from British imperialist rule, and fostered a limited form of Malay nationalism, which gained them some degree of collaboration from the Malay administrators and traditional aristocracy.

The occupiers regarded the Chinese as enemies, and treated them with great harshness. During the so-called sook ching (purification through suffering), up to 40,000 Chinese in Malaya and Singapore were killed in an attempt to crush the Malay sections of the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China. Racial tension was also increased by the Japanese practice of using Malay paramilitary units to fight Chinese resistance. However, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), consisting mostly of Chinese, organised the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), which became the most effective resistance force in the occupied Asian countries. With it began the real struggle for national liberation.

An opportunity lost

In official history, decolonisation of the Malayan peninsular is often portrayed as a relatively smooth process of the British giving independence to the Malayans. In reality it was based on a sharp class conflict led by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).

The MCP was founded in 1930. Already in the 1920s Communists were active inside the Malayan branches of the Chinese nationalist party Kuomintang. This ended with the Chinese Revolution of 1927 and the bloody defeat of the Communists at the hands of the Kuomintang. But from the beginning Communism in the Malay States had its overwhelming base of support in the Chinese community. In the first years, there were just a handful of people. This started to change from 1933 onwards. By that time the world economic depression had hit Malaya severely, owing to its extreme reliance on the international tin and rubber market. The MCP moved in on the growing wave of labour unrest and was quite strong in organising unions and strikes. J.H. Brimmell writes:

"[The MCP's] influence grew by leaps and bounds, culminating in the strike at the Batu Arang coal mine in Selangor at the end of 1935. Workers under Communist leadership took possession of the mines and set up a Soviet Government. They were put down after an armed clash with the police, but the strike wave continued." (Communism in South East Asia, p.96)

However, the real breakthrough came with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. The MCP tapped into the wave of anti-Japanese feeling and organised a broad movement against Japanese imperialism. This prompted a sudden surge in its membership, reaching 5000 members by late 1930s. They were said to control a much larger base of over 100,000 sympathisers. Large numbers of Chinese workers and lower middle class had become disaffected by the Kuomintang, and were looking for the Communists as an alternative. However, the MCP often made propaganda on nationalist lines, not internationalism. In this they were influenced by the typical nationalism of Stalinism. In fact, as a young, inexperienced party they followed all the zigzags of Stalin. In the 1920s they were doing "deep entryism" in the Kuomintang; in the 1930s they organised a "People's Front against Japan"; after the Stalin-Hitler Pact in 1939 the MCP launched a series of strikes aimed at impeding Malaya's contribution to the British war effort, and in 1941 they made a 180 degree turn in asking for military training from the British.

During World War II, the MCP was regrouped as the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), and engaged in successive jungle guerrilla attacks on the Japanese military. The MPAJA was funded, armed and trained by the United Kingdom and the British Commando Force 136. Within a few months the MPAJA had established themselves as the only real power other than the Japanese. The guerrilla warfare brought the MCP into contact with the peasants and they started to understand the basic needs of the rural population. Many Chinese had gone to the countryside when they lost their livelihood because of the 1930s depression, and they became squatters on government land. The MCP received strong support from these Chinese and also from non-Chinese peasants, who saw the Communists protect them during the war while the British military and Malayan nationalist groupings were paralysed and at the mercy of the Japanese military. The MPAJA became the most effective resistance force in the Asian territories under Japanese occupation.

Japanese imperialism resorted to the same tactics as British imperialism before: trying to turn the Malay against the Chinese. To counterbalance the economic power of the Chinese, the Malay aristocracy had received all the non-European positions in the colonial administration (read part 1). The Japanese used this structure to fight the MPAJA and even organised Malay paramilitary units. Brimmell writes:

"Aware of the latent hostility between the Malay and the Chinese communities, they [the Japanese] did their best to increase this, in order to lighten their task. Their efforts in this direction were considerably assisted by the activities of the MPAJA, which, in the course of its carefully calculated resistance action, eliminated Malay policemen from time to time and fostered the view that the Malays as a whole were collaborationist, while the Chinese were supporters of the Allied cause." (ibid. p.197)

In the post-war period, this nationalist contradiction time and again kept on popping up. 

Power in the hands of the MCP

When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the Communists came out of the jungle. Apart from the Malay villages, the MCP was in full control of Malaya. They published the first post-war newspaper in Malaya, the People's Voice News (Min Sheng Pao), and set up mass organisations, most importantly in the trade union field. The MPAJA was only partially disbanded in exchange for cash per person, but the MCP retained the best arms for later occasions. When the British returned to Malaya in September 1945, they met with a strong MCP. They made all sorts of concessions to quiet them and again gain a foothold on the peninsula. For example, the 23-year old leader of the guerrilla forces, Chin Peng, was rewarded with the Order of the British Empire and invited to the Allied Victory Parade in London. As a consequence of their (or better, Moscow's) pro-British line during the war, the MCP accepted the rewards - thereby granting the British some legitimacy and authority - but now demanded independence and the entire withdrawal of British forces.

Knowing the strength of and support for the MCP, the British advanced with care. In the first years they made concessions and promises, for example by reducing the privileges of the Malay feudal lords. At the same time, they steadily increased repression, especially against the workers.

The disorganisation of industry as a result of the occupation and the food shortage caused by the breakdown of the South East Asian economy produced unemployment, rising prices and considerable unrest, most importantly among the Chinese and Indian workers. At the end of 1945 the General Labour Union (GLU) was established after a large-scale dock strike in Singapore, due partly to economic reasons and partly to an objection to loading arms destined for the Dutch in Indonesia. The GLU, led by Chinese and Indians, incorporated existing unions and formed new ones, and its power bases lay in the rubber plantations, tin mines and wharves. Under the influence of the MCP, the GLU called in January 1946 a two-day general strike in protest against the arrest of ex-members of the MPAJA by the British colonial authorities. Due to this show of strength and in a general atmosphere of labour protest, the GLU started to recruit new members rapidly. From 1946 until the first months of 1948, a wave of strikes erupted, involving some 300 strikes. In the twelve months from April 1947, 512,000 workdays were lost in Malaya and 205,000 in Singapore.

The British dealt harshly with strikers with measures including arrests and deportations. The colonial administration revived the Trade Union Enactment of 1940 which made the GLU illegal. To be less vulnerable to such legislation, the GLU changed its structure to a federation, the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions. By the end of 1947 it controlled some three quarters of the organised labour force. Syed Hussein Ali notes: "In an attempt to reduce the influence of the GLU, the British brought in trade union advisors from Britain to help organize moderate unions and leadership and counter the allegedly pro-communist ones. They were quite successful in this strategy among the Indian workers." (‘Economic Take-Off: Trade Unions in Malaysia', in Globalization and Third World Trade Unions, ed. Henk Thomas, p.68)

However, all the attempts could not stop the increasing militancy of the workers. Therefore the colonial government dissolved the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions in May 1948. Phillip Deery reports:

"The response of employers was unyielding and their actions draconian. They rued the erosion of their paternalistic "rights" over the workforce and feared the growing power of the Communist-dominated union movement. To bolster productivity and profit margins during a difficult period of postwar reconstruction, they were intent on restoring stability and order. Their crackdown on labor organizations was assisted - cautiously and perfunctorily in 1945-1946 and more earnestly in 1947-1948 - by the colonial administration. The interests of state and business coincided insofar as each was committed to restoring business confidence and curbing the politicization of industrial unrest. Prior to the outbreak of the Malayan Emergency, the employers took the lead in attempting to reimpose discipline. They formed new associations such as the Malayan Planting Industry Employers' Association and the Malayan Mining Employers' Association, the former of which recommended flogging, banishment, and even execution for "vicious malcontents," "agitators," and other "subversive elements" who masqueraded as adherents of a "utopian political faith." As the price of rubber dropped in the winter of 1947, the employers dismissed workers and used eviction orders to expel labor activists from their plantations. In mid-1947, during strikes in Kedah sparked by a substantial wage cut, the planters insisted that they would negotiate only with contractors, not with unions. Some introduced their own employment regulations that severely circumscribed union activity. Many employers dismissed union "agitators" and replaced them with non-unionized "scab" workers. The union activists, for their part, engaged in ruthless picket action and violent intimidation of strikebreakers. They threatened the lives of managers and occasionally made good on their threats, prompting managers to evacuate their families to Penang." (‘Malaya, 1948: Britain's Asian Cold War?', in Journal of Cold War Studies, Winter 2007, Vol. 9, No. 1, p. 44)

Indeed, Communists began to get frustrated and started economic sabotage in the factories. They resorted to the elimination of strike-breakers and the individual terrorism of the guerrilla years. When on June 16, 1948, three European plantation managers were killed at Sungai Siput, Perak, the British brought into law emergency measures, first in Perak and then in July country-wide. This was the beginning of the Malayan Emergency, which lasted until 1960. Under the measures, the MCP and other leftist parties were outlawed, and the police were given the power to imprison, without trial, Communists and those suspected of assisting Communists. Thousands of left-wing activists and trade unionists were arrested and many executed.

Under the leadership of Chin Peng, the MCP retreated to rural areas and started a guerrilla war. This would prove to be a mistake from which they never recovered. Instead of conquering patiently the minds of people through collective action, something which they had already got a good start at, they isolated themselves in the jungle and left the working class in the cities. In a situation of brutal repression, it is normal that revolutionaries go underground, but this is not the same as retreating to guerrilla warfare. For a long period, the Bolsheviks also did underground work, of which guerrilla war was only a small part. Their main activities were concentrated on building up the party among the workers in the cities and organising the peasantry in the countryside (something completely different from guerrilla war).

There were several reasons why the majority of the MCP was won to this strategy. First of all, guerrilla war was for them associated with the most glorious period in their relatively short existence, namely the struggle against Japanese occupation. After the war they came as victors out of the woods, and they hoped to repeat this against the British occupation. Moreover, as a mainly Chinese party they were strongly influenced by the advances of Mao in mainland China and wanted to copy this, in a quite different context, however. A third reason was the increasing internal opposition against the party leadership who had moderated themselves and enjoyed relative prosperity. The ranks of the MCP had not fought for this. Criticisms of the Secretary-General, Lai Tek, grew stronger. The opposition grouped itself around the best-known figure of the war resistance: Chin Peng. Indeed, MCP leaders who had grown to importance during the resistance movement were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the post-war line of a People's Front with Chinese capital and the Malay nationalists.

The People's Front

Malay nationalism appeared rather late on the political scene. The Sultans had always collaborated with the imperialist occupation, both British and Japanese. At that time they did not see any use in stirring up Malay nationalism because they still ruled the Malay communities. However, some intellectuals were influenced by the national awakening against colonialism in the whole Asian region. They dreamt of national liberation and unification of all Melayu people in a Greater Indonesia. In 1938, Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) was formed, with its main goal ostensibly being the formation of this Greater Indonesia.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II in Asia, the British detained several influential KMM leaders. Most of them were freed under the Japanese occupation, because the Japanese could use their anti-British sentiment. In the East Asian region, the Japanese were held in high esteem by nationalists because they were able to resist Western imperialism since the 19th century and build a "real nation". As a consequence, KMM leaders collaborated with Japan on the promise of a Greater Indonesia being formed, which of course never materialised. However, towards the end of the war, Japan tried to establish such a Greater Indonesia to counter the return of European imperialism, but this was cut across by the sudden surrender after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the return of the British, former KMM leaders formed the Malay Nationalist Party (MNP), even adopting the Indonesian Republican flag and other symbols of the Indonesian revolution. Out of resistance against the new British occupation and under the influence of events in Indonesia, the MNP radicalised and came closer to the MCP.

Meanwhile, Britain worked towards a new structure for its colony, the so-called Malayan Union. They could not deny the power of the Communists and tried to sooth them by granting more democratic rights to the Chinese and Indians, thereby also punishing the Sultans for their collaboration with Japan. The Malayan Union would reduce the sovereignty of the Malay rulers both in name and reality, and would not recognise Malay sovereignty over Malaya. A large percentage of the Chinese and Indians - 83 and 75 percent respectively - would qualify for citizenship under the Union, which would grant citizenship to all locally-born residents. With equal rights guaranteed to all, the Malay aristocracy feared that what little power they had left, would soon be taken away from them. Even their traditional stronghold, the civil service, would be open to all Malayans. Therefore they started to stir up fears among the Malay peasantry of a beginning of Chinese domination, and organised rallies to protest the Malayan Union's formation. At one such gathering, placards were hoisted, declaring that "Malaya Belongs to the Malays. We do not want the other races to be given the rights and privileges of the Malays."

In March 1946, a group of Malay royalists and civil servants led by Dato' Onn Ja'afar formed the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), with the help of British colonialists who saw the need for such an organisation to counterbalance Communist influence. Although the Union was established as planned, UMNO boycotted official ceremonies and kept on campaigning for a Federation of Malaya in which sovereignty was to return on the pre-war basis to the Sultans and the power of the Chinese was curtailed. In 1948, they would succeed in retiring the Malayan Union in favour of this Federation of Malaya. Victor Purcell states: "The agitation against the Union in the end became so formidable, being backed in England by ex-Malayan Civil Servants as well as MPs, that the British Government decided to abandon it." (The Revolution in Southeast Asia, p.99)

Opposition to UMNO during 1946-48 came from the All-Malaya Council of Joint Action (AMCJA), led by Singapore Eurasians and Chinese. They too opposed the Malayan Union, but for very different reasons, namely its exclusion of Singapore (predominantly Chinese), lack of universal suffrage, and restricted civil liberties. The AMCJA was an amalgamation of several smaller organisations and also trade unions. In fact, the body of the AMCJA was made up by front organisations of the MCP. Since the Malay petty bourgeois strove towards a reduction in the power of the Sultans, the MNP too was strongly opposed to UMNO, and formed its own movement called PUTERA. On this basis, they made a coalition with AMCJA against the Federation proposals of UMNO.

Without the Communists the AMCJA-PUTERA coalition would have been weak. Through the trade unions and other mass organisations under Communist influence, this coalition received a strong mass base. However, in typical People's Front fashion they left the leadership in the hands of the Chinese bourgeoisie and the Malay petty bourgeoisie of PUTERA. The AMCJA was led by Tan Cheng Lock, a businessman in the Malayan rubber, tapioca and gambier industries. All the activity of the Communists was subordinated to the preservation of this front, while all the activity of the Chinese bourgeoisie was subordinated to the preservation of its property - and thus to contain Communist activity.

Brimmell gives an account of the MCP January 1946 Central Committee at which Secretary-General Lai Tek put forward his political line. He saw two alternatives in the post-war period: a revolutionary struggle for national liberation as in Indonesia, or the formation of a People's Front. In his opinion the latter was the correct course in Malayan conditions and by adopting it the party would protect world peace, annihilate the remnants of Fascism, and oppose imperialist exploitation. Brimmell sums up the nine points of the new party program (p.203-204):

  1. Self rule for Malaya based on national self-determination.
  2. The establishment of an All-Malayan National Assembly which would draw up a democratic constitution, with electoral rights for all, regardless of race, sex, politics or religion.
  3. The formation of a Malayan democratic government; with the usual guarantees of democratic liberties.
  4. An independent tariff policy, free trade, and an improvement in the conditions of the workers, peasants, and those engaged in commerce, with an expanded national economy and improved social welfare.
  5. A universal increase in salaries and revenue, with tax and price reform.
  6. The institution of free education of a democratic nature in the national language of each race.
  7. An eight-hour working day and a social security program.
  8. Equal rights for women with the usual privileges for women workers.
  9. The maintenance of the unity of the oppressed peoples of the Far East within the framework of preserving world peace.

Progressive as many of these demands may be, this is a bourgeois-democratic program, not a socialist program and certainly not a program to guide the Communist party. Crucial in all this, is the fact that this program is unrealisable under capitalism, as was sufficiently evidenced in the subsequent history of Malaysia. The stamp of Moscow is obvious. "Preserving world peace" in reality meant no revolution in exchange for the "peaceful coexistence of the Soviet Union with American imperialism".

This is a typical Stalinist two-stage program, with first a bourgeois-democratic revolution and somewhere in the future an unmentioned Socialist revolution. The Russian Revolution had already 30 years before proven in practice that this was a completely wrong theory. In underdeveloped countries the working class will lead the revolution - as it was doing in Malaya after the war. They can not rely on the weak bourgeoisie to fulfil the tasks of the democratic revolution, the workers and peasants have to do it themselves. In the same movement the workers will start with the socialist tasks because they can not rely on the bourgeoisie to develop industry under such a regime or even to preserve democratic rights. Lai Tek argued the opposite: organise the workers and peasants to support the national bourgeoisie in taking power. The Chinese bourgeoisie would thank them by way of a dagger in their back.

When it became clear that the British were increasingly relying on UMNO and accepted its proposals for a Federation of Malaya, the PUTERA-AMCJA coalition (but de facto the MCP) launched a nation-wide commercial strike (a "hartal") in October 1947. The hartal is estimated to have cost the Malayan economy £4 million. At that moment the Chinese capitalists decided to leave the coalition and support the Federation, which was established in February 1948. The coalition collapsed. Obviously rank and file Communists were angry at the leadership whose perspectives had brought them this far. Through the People's Front they had been time and again warned not to take power. On top of that, Lai Tek had disappeared in the Spring of 1947 with a large part of the party funds. Frustration built up in the ranks and some turned to acts of individual terrorism against businessmen and traitors. When the Federation government of the British and the Malay aristocracy responded with bloody repression, Chin Peng's call for a return to the jungle resounded strongly with a radical section of the MCP.

Malayan Emergency

The MCP set up the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA, also known under the name the British gave them: the Malayan Races Liberation Army or MRLA). Expected to last no more than a few months, the insurgency continued until 31 July 1960, three years after Malaya had gained its independence. The Malayan Emergency was Britain's longest colonial conflict and turned out to be far more costly in human and material terms than anyone could have foreseen. The British government spent at least £520 million, and an official estimate put the overall cost at £700 million. Wikipedia gives the following figures about the human cost: "During the conflict security forces killed 6,710 MRLA guerrillas and captured 1,287. Of the total number of guerrillas, 2,702 surrendered during the conflict and about 500 at the end of the conflict. There were 1,346 Malayan troops and 519 British military personnel killed. 2,478 civilians were killed and 810 recorded missing as a result of the conflict." The Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM, Socialist Party of Malaysia) states the following: "It was a bloody war which resulted in more than 20,000 deaths and detention of 34,000 people." 

"Malayan Emergency" was the colonial government's term for the war. The MNLA termed it the "Anti-British National Liberation War". The conflict was called an "emergency" for economic reasons, as London insurance companies would only cover property losses to Malayan rubber and tin estates during rioting or commotion in an emergency, but not in an armed insurrection or civil war. So the rubber plantations and tin mining industries pushed for the use of the term "emergency".

By October 1950 nearly 50,000 British troops were deployed against at most 7-8,000 guerrillas. Britain's massive military commitment to defeat the insurgency at a time of severe post-war fiscal austerity had a significant economic dimension. Malaya's dollar-earning potential through rubber sales made British control over its colonial possession absolutely essential. Phillip Deery analyses:

"As Creech Jones told the Cabinet (but not Parliament):

‘During 1947 the total value of the exports of Singapore and the [Malayan] Federation together was £151 million of which dollar exports accounted for £56 million. [Malaya] is by far the most important source of dollars in the colonial empire and it would gravely worsen the whole dollar balance of the Sterling Area if there were serious interference with Malayan exports.'

"In 1948 the United States imported 727,000 tons of rubber, more than half of which came from Malaya. Of the 158,000 tons of tin imported by the United States, all but 3,000 came from Malaya. Measured in U.S. dollars, rubber shipments from Malaya exceeded in total value all domestic exports from Britain to the United States. From 1946 to 1950, Britain earned $700 million from rubber exports to the United States. Any interruption of that supply by the insurgency would seriously impair the British economy. In 1948, Britain was still struggling to maintain the value of its currency, and the "dollar gap" seemed to be getting wider. This financial crisis made earnings from the "Sterling Area," in which Malaya was the linchpin, all the more crucial. The security of British business in Malaya was therefore of central economic importance. This economic motivation was not publicly emphasized, for to have done so would have permitted it to be exploited by the British Communist newspaper The Daily Worker as well as provide ammunition to the more ardent anti-imperialist "Keep Left" faction within the British Labour Party." (‘Malaya, 1948: Britain's Asian Cold War?', p. 37)

The MNLA commonly employed guerrilla tactics, sabotaging installations, attacking rubber plantations and destroying transportation and infrastructure. They distributed political newsletters to the locals. Again, support for the MNLA was mainly based on ethnic Chinese, although a smaller part of the Malay peasants also was sympathetic. Especially the Chinese squatters on the outskirts of the jungle provided considerable help through food, medicines, and crucial information.

But as usual, the strategy of guerrilla warfare had its disadvantages. First of all, the retreat to the jungle isolated the MCP from the workers. True, the working class suffered a setback in 1948, but this was only temporary. Syed Hussein Ali writes: "The Korean War in the early 1950s induced a rubber boom and the unions succeeded in negotiating higher wages. This led to an expansion of union membership." (‘Economic Take-Off: Trade Unions in Malaysia', p.68) In contrast, the guerrilla sabotage of rubber estates, tin mines and factories did not really attract the workers, since this meant loss of their employment. Further, guerrillaism gave the colonial government the excuse for a crack-down on the Left in general and inciting fear of "violent Communism". Most left-wing parties, such as the MNP, and trade unions were soon banned. In 1950 it even led to the total reorganisation of the Chinese peasantry by Director of Operations Lieutenant-General Sir Harold Briggs. In the "Briggs Plan" more than half a million rural Malayans, of which 400,000 were Chinese, were moved into 450 so-called New Villages. Through these fenced and patrolled resettlements, the insurgents were detached from their supply sources and their support bases. It increased their vulnerability to the military operations of the security forces.

In October 1951, the MNLA ambushed and killed the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney. Gurney's successor, Lieutenant General Gerald Templer, was instructed by the British government to push for immediate measures to give ethnic Chinese residents the right to vote and so erode Chinese support for the guerrillas. He also pursued the Briggs Plan, and sped up the formation of a Malayan army. At the same time he said that the emergency itself was the main impediment to accelerating decolonisation, thereby further instigating public opinion against the Communists. Templer also implemented the concept of "hearts and minds", a campaign through which the British army wanted to secure support by giving medical and food aid to Malays and indigenous tribes. In the New Villages too they were able to gather some support by giving money to the villagers and ownership of the land they lived on.

The British, helped by the Australians, refined their aerial warfare by dropping "safe conduct" passes accompanied by seductive promises of monetary rewards to encourage or accelerate defections. Aerial drops of millions of leaflets, including handwritten letters and photographs from surrendered guerrillas, were used in conjunction with "voice-aircraft" to personalize propaganda. On top of that, British and Australian planes dropped more common weaponry: bombs, chemical defoliants, and napalm. In the 1960s, the British experience in Malaya would prove to be crucial for the Americans in combating the Vietcong.

By 1954, when Templer departed, these measures had transformed the conflict. The insurgents had been forced back into the jungle, where they struggled to sustain themselves. Because of a lack of perspective, they subsided into internal fighting and the execution of "traitors". In 1955 the MCP offered to negotiate a settlement, but did so in vain because UMNO was strongly opposed and the colonial government felt the guerrillas were suffocating. For a moment the conflict flared up. Everywhere in their Empire, the British were on the defensive and could not sustain any longer a protracted conflict. Therefore, they made a deal with UMNO for granting independence.


While the MCP was fighting a hard battle in the jungle, their former friends among the Chinese bourgeois had come to an agreement with UMNO, with a little help from the British. Tan Cheng Lock, the businessman who led the AMCJA, played a crucial role. D.R. SarDesai analyses:

"The British quickly recognized the existence of a political problem, namely the need to associate the Chinese community with any new constitutional or political setup in the country. They encouraged the formation in February 1949 of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) as an alternative organization for the Chinese to channel their political aspirations. Under the able leadership of the wealthy industrialist and veteran politician Tan Cheng Lok, the divergent Chinese communities were brought together for the first time. Tan forged collaboration with the UMNO in a common call for merdeka, independence for Malaya." (Southeast Asia: Past and Present, p.198)

The alliance of UMNO and MCA won several local elections in 1951 and 1952. Therefore they strengthened their cooperation in the Alliance. Until then the Malay aristocracy always relied on the colonisers, because they needed this support to back their authority. But with the support of Chinese capital secured and the MCP isolated in the jungle, they now felt safe to ask for self-government from the British - and the British now felt safe to grant them "independence". In 1955 the Alliance was joined by the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) and won the first federal general election decisively with 51 of 52 seats. UMNO president Tunku Abdul Rahman, a son of the Sultan of Kedah, became Chief Minister. But still Malaya was ruled under the guidance of Great Britain. So Tunku made a trip to London to negotiate Malayan independence, and 31 August 1957 was decided as the date. Until today, Tunku Abdul Rahman and UMNO are celebrated as the achievers of Merdeka. The fact is that UMNO was the last party to call for Independence as well as the one that made the least sacrifices.

Like in other colonies, formal independence was achieved, but imperialism kept on exploiting Malaya through the world market. Khoo Boo Teik states:

"The first ruling coalition, the Alliance did not change the fundamental features of the political economy. This was largely because of the character of Malaya's decolonisation. The colonial state had defeated a post-World War II insurrection of communists, left-wing nationalists, former wartime partisans, radical sections of the working class, and squatter farmers. After that, the colonial state and the Alliance forged a ‘Merdeka compromise'. The compromise protected foreign economic interests (which were not nationalised, as happened, say, in Indonesia under Soekarno), preserved the position of domiciled Chinese capital, and largely ceded the control of the state apparatus to the Malay aristocrats who led UMNO." (in The Political Economy of South-East Asia, edited by Rodan, Hewison and Robison, p.181-182)

However, the national question was never resolved, as was shown in a dramatic way during the 1969 ethnic riots. Although the Emergency was lifted in 1960, it was succeeded 24 hours later by the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA). Prime Minister Tunku declared the act to "be used solely against the communists", but since then it has been used to imprison thousands of activists without trial. It does so until today. To calm the workers and peasants, especially in the context of the "Asian Cold War", the government embarked on an ambitious plan for industrialisation, complete with Five-Year Plans, although on a capitalist basis. The United States allowed on the one hand massive Malaysian exports to its market and protectionism in Malaysia itself, since they wanted to guard it as a bulwark against Communism, just like South Korea, Taiwan etc. As in these countries, workers and peasants continued to be brutally exploited, in spite of wage increases. This was the price they paid for the failure of the Communists in taking power and transforming Malaya with the rest of Asia into a healthy workers' democracy.

The MCP itself too paid a heavy price for its mistakes. Upon Malaya's independence, the insurgency lost its motive as a war of national liberation. Tunku Abdul Rahman declared in 1961: "When we took over, with independence in 1957, the Communists had been claiming to be fighting for Malayan freedom. But once we had our freedom their argument lost its force, and by 1960 we were able to end the emergency." Thus, during October-November 1957 the MCP tried to broker a peace agreement, to no avail. In 1958, after mass defections, the MCP demobilized the guerrillas, and by 1960 the movement was limited to a small nucleus hiding on the Malayan-Thai border. After an exhausting fight deep in the jungle, without any perspective, a final peace settlement was signed on 2 December 1989. The MCP had fought a heroic battle, but lost the opportunity to take power after the war and collapsed in isolation.

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